Photo courtesy of IMSA

Overachieving on bad days pivotal for No. 3 Corvette’s GTLM title push

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BRASELTON, Ga. – It takes a team to make a race car work and run properly. Drivers get a majority of the credit but the true stars work to credit the work from the behind-the-scenes personnel of engineers, strategists and crew members.

Such is the case for how Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia, in their sixth full season together as co-drivers at Corvette Racing, stand on the precipice of wrapping this year’s GT Le Mans class title in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

The Nos. 3 and 4 Corvette C7.Rs are the oldest cars in class, now into year four while each of its competitors from BMW, Ferrari, Ford and Porsche have a car in either its first or second year.

That, along with various IMSA-assessed Balance of Performance adjustments have meant the outright pace of the Corvette hasn’t quite stacked up to some of its competitors.

But what the car has lacked in pace, it’s made up for in veteran cohesion of the No. 3 group, led in large part by lead engineer/strategist Kyle Millay and car chief Danny Binks, the latter of whom might be second to program manager Doug Fehan in terms of “legend status” within the Corvette Racing crew umbrella.

Magnussen and Garcia will clinch the driver’s title provided they start the race and achieve the minimum drive time of 45 minutes. They have a 21-point lead over Ford Chip Ganassi Racing’s Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe and can score a minimum of 22 points even with a ninth and last place finish in class.

It would be the pair’s first class title since 2013, which also included three wins, including an excellent defense drive at COTA from Garcia in what was also the oldest car on the grid in the previous Corvette C6.R against the then-newer SRT Viper GTS-R and BMW Z4 GTE.

How they got there this year speaks to a mix of guile and determination, with three wins and 10 top-five finishes in class in all 10 races to date, the only car in the class to do so.

Garcia’s “King of Spain” comeback drive at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring spoke loudest among the three wins, but great calls from Millay on the box put him in that spot, as well as at the other two wins achieved this year at Circuit of The Americas and VIRginia International Raceway.

Photo courtesy of IMSA

“In reality, they all boiled down to the same thing,” Millay told NBC Sports. “Sebring didn’t come our way until three hours to go, when an opportunity presented to go off strategy to the Ford guys. None of them tried it as well. We knew there we could leapfrog them at least once on another stop, then Antonio to stay ahead of them. The Ford faded away and the Porsche got closer. They got unlucky with flats.

“COTA was basically a Lambo had come to stop on track. We were P4 and pitted before the pits closed. We cycled to the lead there, being one of the few cars in the pits. We built a pretty good cushion in traffic and subsequent pit stops. The ultimate BMW wasn’t able to track us down.

“Then VIR was probably closest thing to a real shootout all year. Very good pit stops cycled us ahead of 66.We got a bit of luck with the puncture and issues for BMW. Then Ferrari took itself out of contention.”

While the wins have been good, it’s the races that haven’t gone to plan where Corvette has excelled most this year. All the top-five finishes have spoken to strategy calls gone right and executing in places where it wasn’t expected.

Two races stick out as a case in point: Lime Rock Park, where Corvette Racing nabbed its 100th win as a team last year, and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, last time out. Both races saw the No. 3 car finish fourth but in either case, it was a result that solidified the championship status.

Millay explained the former, Binks the latter.

“Lime Rock is a good example of that. We elected to push deep into the fuel window to get the best fuel and tires out there,” Millay said. “That allowed us to do two things: got us a flyer for fastest lap bonus point and two, with Lime Rock being fairly high deg for tires, we caught the BMW (Martin Tomcyzk’s BMW) but he was a bit too wide to get around! We weren’t going to touch the Porsches all weekend on pace so it was a race for third.”

On Monterey, Binks said, “As a group, our best days are the ones you win. But as a group, we’ve done a better job on races with a rough go. How do we get to the end and finish third with a fifth place car? Between the pit stops, the driver coaching and all of that with Kyle, maximizing the whole package is maybe more fulfilling.

“Last week for instance, we were fourth with a sixth or seventh place car. At one point the Ford guys were second and we were seventh. Then we were second and they were seventh! They’re over there losing their minds and I’m like, ‘What the heck? All they had to do was follow us!’ But what Kyle does, is that he’s done an amazing job to react in split-second decisions.”

Millay and fellow Corvette Racing engineer Chuck Houghton, who used to be on the No. 3 car and is now on the No. 4 car, are a pair of Pratt & Miller Engineering “racing lifers” through IMSA and GRAND-AM General Motors programs.

“I think it’s almost like an old marriage at this point!” Millay laughed.

But Millay’s learned well from Houghton as they worked on parallel programs. And he’s taken the lead under the No. 3 tent to where Binks doesn’t need to say much to him.

“I think at the beginning he asked a lot of questions. I tried to answer them with my thoughts and perspectives. But now he just runs with it,” Binks said. “He understands fuel mileage, spark maps, tire wear, computer modeling, and basically I don’t say much anymore. He runs with it now. He has the whole game in his head.”

Photo courtesy of IMSA

Where Binks has helped bring the team a new dimension of preparation is in its pit stop practice in-between race. The team works to do “30 to 50” stops with another car at the shop and said the team has picked up “a second to a second and a half” on stops this year – time that can’t be accounted for on the track.

Overall continuity in the group is probably the overall key to success, as the core of the No. 3 team has been together over a seven to eight year period.

“I guess the biggest thing there is as a team from mechanics to engineers, is that we’ve all been a cohesive group since 2011,” Millay said.

“We’ve been through the trenches and stuck it out through good and bad times. It takes quite a bit to get us rattled. Whether we qualify on pole or dead last, if opportunities present themselves we’ll take advantage. Even if we haven’t had pace, we’ve kept a level head. When we get the chance to make something happen we’ve been in the right spot to do it.

“We’ve had some good fortune too, with guys either getting punctures or falling off and us taking advantage, or them catching opportune yellows.

“It’s been a year where fortune has been in our favor. We’ve had good races, good execution and a bit of luck to bring it all together.”

Photo courtesy of IMSA

Max Verstappen shows speed in Austria; Lewis Hamilton lacking pace

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SPIELBERG, Austria — Red Bull driver Max Verstappen posted the fastest time Friday, and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton lacked pace in the second practice session for the Styrian Grand Prix.

Verstappen was 0.043 seconds quicker than Valtteri Bottas – Hamilton’s teammate at Mercedes – and 0.217 ahead of Racing Point driver Sergio Perez.

“The car already feels better than last week, the balance is a lot nicer and we have made a good step,” said Verstappen, who did not finish last Sunday’s season-opening Austrian GP after starting from second.

“It is too early to say how we are looking against Mercedes, but we are quite happy. We have tried a few different directions to understand the car a bit more and we are heading the right way.”

Hamilton was only sixth fastest, about 0.7 seconds slower than Verstappen. Hamilton spent a chunk of time in the garage while his team worked on his car.

“It was quite far off, so there’s a lot of work to do in the background to figure it out,” he said. “Others out there are quick and Valtteri’s obviously got good pace.”

Despite adding a new front wing to its car, struggling Ferrari had a dismal afternoon.

Charles Leclerc was only ninth quickest and 1 second slower than Verstappen, while teammate Sebastian Vettel lagged about 2 seconds behind Verstappen in 16th.

Daniel Ricciardo lost control of his Renault car early into the second session, swerving left off the track and thudding backward into a protective tire wall. He climbed out unharmed, other than a slight limp, but the left rear tire was mangled and the car was lifted off the track by a crane.

Alexander Albon spun twice, the Red Bull driver’s second spin taking him right off the track and into gravel.

Earlier, Perez was fastest in the first practice ahead of Verstappen and Bottas, with Hamilton fourth quickest and Vettel only 10th in sunny conditions.

That session was briefly interrupted when Nicholas Latifi’s Williams car pulled over to the side with a gearbox issue.

The incident brought out yellow flags, forcing drivers to slow down. But McLaren driver Lando Norris overtook Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri and got a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

Norris, 20, finished third at the Austrian GP last weekend, becoming the youngest British driver in F1 history to get on the podium and third youngest in F1.

The upcoming race is changing names from last week but is at the same track. It is surrounded by the Styrian mountains.

A third and final practice will be held on Saturday morning before qualifying in the afternoon, with heavy rain and storms in the forecast.

If third practice and qualifying are washed out, drivers take their grid positions from where they placed in second practice.

“It would definitely suck if we didn’t get to qualify,” said Hamilton, who started fifth and finished fourth last weekend. “It would make it challenging.”

However, qualifying also could be moved to Sunday morning.

“I don’t expect to be on pole position with this (practice) lap,” Verstappen said.